Final Fantasy 14 has been on quite an extraordinary journey, one so tumultuous it’s a miracle the MMORPG is still alive and kicking, let alone one of the biggest games on the planet.
Spurred onward by a love for the brand and an unwavering dedication to its fanbase, Square Enix rebuilt Final Fantasy 14 from the ashes, nuking the 1.0 version from orbit and creating something truly astonishing in its image.
A Realm Reborn launched in 2013 to critical and commercial acclaim, cementing itself as one of the genre’s brightest sparks, even if it was built on the ruins once though unsalvageable. Despite its warm reception, the game’s director, Naoki Yoshida, is well aware that it was put together under dire circumstances, and if a second opportunity arises, they’d happily make some changes.
“After I took over the project I made the decision to revamp Final Fantasy 14,” Yoshida tells me. “We recreated everything from scratch in only two and a half years, we didn’t really have enough time to create the game.”
The development team was in its infancy, too. Many key members were busy expanding their skillsets, acquiring expertise required to compete with western greats like Guild Wars and World of Warcraft, all while remaining faithful to the Final Fantasy name.
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“Everything was so challenging to them.” Yoshida seems both proud and bewildered when he thinks back to the origins of Final Fantasy 14, a game whose original vision he couldn’t stomach more than five minutes of because of how absurdly unwieldy it was. Shut down to make room for A Realm Reborn’s release in 2013, 1.0 was a beautiful product of hubris. It took the success of Final Fantasy 11 for granted, pushing gorgeous visuals as opposed to mechanical advancements the genre had adopted years ago.
A Realm Reborn changed all of this, although it is a flawed gem, cobbled together under extreme circumstances we’ll likely never see again. “If we had full capability and enough time to do it, in all honesty we’d recreate everything from scratch,” Yoshida said of the current iteration, which is still fun to play, but burdened by an inconsistent sense of pacing.
“At Level 20 you fight Ifrit, and then there’s almost nothing until Titan at Level 32. In the original scenario we planned to have a Ramuh encounter in-between them, but simply didn’t have the resources. With changes to A Realm Reborn we want to cut this down little by little to make it feel more streamlined.” Grinding through the main campaign before hitting its expansions are a common barrier for new players jumping into Final Fantasy 14, a problem Yoshida and company are keenly aware of.
“Between patches 2.1 and 2.3 there are so many side quests required for MSQ [main quest] that it made players exhausted. Even if you cleared it, it’s still a long way to 2.5, so people might be discouraged and end up lapsing out.” A complete overhaul with such an old engine is unlikely, but Square Enix is doing what it can to make A Realm Reborn more accessible.
“The team is currently working on removing unimportant things to streamline the process. It’s really hard to revamp everything, but there are some bits we can improve, so that’s what we’re going to do.”
This recreation of A Realm Reborn could arguably be coming at the perfect time, since Final Fantasy 14 is poised to arrive on Xbox platforms in the near future, an announcement few in the gaming landscape saw coming. Microsoft’s foray into the gaming space is infamously unpopular in Japan, eclipsed by Sony and Nintendo on all fronts, and that hasn’t really changed.
“When the Xbox One launched in Japan there were no TV commercials or advertisements, so I thought they were just giving us a pass this time,” Yoshida said of the brand. Under the leadership of Phil Spencer, Xbox’s attitude towards Japanese games has changed dramatically, with the upcoming arrival of not only Final Fantasy 14, but also Phantasy Star Online 2. “Phil Spencer had made such an effort to make this possible, and now it’s cool to see it becoming a reality.”
However Yoshida makes it clear that Final Fantasy 14 on Xbox must abide by one strict rule – being fully compatible with other platforms. In theory, you’ll be able to login to the Xbox version at launch and find your characters intact and ready to tackle endgame content. Square Enix isn’t ready to share launch details on this version, but given Xbox Series X is on the horizon, we might be waiting until the next generation to hear more.
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Shadowbringers, the MMORPG’s latest expansion, has been heralded as one of 2019’s best games by critics and players alike, sitting pretty with a ‘91’ on Metacritic at the time of writing. This reception caught the development team by surprise, but they aren’t letting it cloud their vision for the future. “When the Metacritic score was first revealed it really took everyone by surprise, and we were thinking ‘it must be getting lower’ soon but it just kept climbing!”
“During development we didn’t really set a goal of hitting a certain review score,” Yoshida explains, a milestone which often helps determine staff bonuses at other studios. “We didn’t want this to be a goal for us because the most important thing is the community enjoys the game.” Such expectations can also bring unwarranted pressure on Yoshida’s team, a paranoia he’s quick to dispel. “It becomes a pressure for some developers. If they have panic attacks from the pressure I tell them it’s okay, you can do whatever you want and keep doing what you’re doing.”
While he’s often hyperbolised as the saviour of Final Fantasy, Naoki Yoshida is incredibly humble, keen to sing the praises of his colleagues at every turn: “Shadowbringers is proof of how much the development team has grown, and that’s why I always remind them to keep creating the game with fun and find as much enjoyment in that as possible. That being said, I bet hitting a higher score with the next expansion will be impossible!”
Because I’m the worst person on the planet, I couldn’t help but bring up the subject of Fortnite before concluding my chat with Naoki Yoshida. Earlier this year, the original version of Fortnite was shut off suddenly, caused by a black hole essentially swallowing up the entire universe. Servers remained inaccessible for several hours, with players waiting desperately to play the battle royale.
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Once Epic Games was ready, it returned with the introduction of Chapter 2. This version of the game featured a new map, new mechanics and a revamped progression system that arguably transformed the entire experience. It also brought drew a number of comparisons between itself and A Realm Reborn.
“Some of the development team are fans of Fortnite and they noticed it resembles the End of Era in Final Fantasy 14. Some people came to me and asked, ‘did you see this, did you see that?’ so everyone was aware of it. The visual representation did really resemble what we did with destroying the world.”
The act of obliterating the world of massively multiplayer games isn’t new in the slightest, with Yoshida referencing classic titles such as Ultima Online, which flooded the world with demons and expected players to fight them off. It seems the best aspect of these events, in his eyes, is how such things bring players together.
“In older MMO titles like Ultima Online, when the world was ending a lot of demons suddenly appeared and killed everyone. They all died, were resurrected, died again and were resurrected again. It was quite messy, but that’s the kind of thing older MMORPGs did.
“The developers just want players to enjoy the moment together, almost like it’s a giant festival kind of thing. That’s probably why Fortnite made the decision to do this, and given it’s Fortnite, players probably saw it as an even bigger surprise.”
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Despite Final Fantasy 14 not being the first title to destroy its world in such a way, it’s arguably the most iconic. It set the foundations for a success story which, by all accounts, shouldn’t have really happened. Even so, Yoshida couldn’t help but gloat a little bit, and it turns out his son is an avid player of Epic Game’s battle royale.
“My son is in his first year of college and he’s a massive fan of Fortnite. When I went back home he came up to me saying, ‘Fortnite is doing something really great, they’re destroying the world, you need to see it!’ So I’m like, well I actually did that six years ago. He learned through Fortnite that Final Fantasy 14 has actually gone through such a moment.”
Final Fantasy 14: A Realm Reborn and its trio of expansions – Heavensward, Stormblood and Shadowbringers – are now available across PS4, PC and Mac. A recent crossover with NieR: Automata has seen it explode in popularity, and the community has shown no signs of slowing, as more and more players jump on Square Enix’s almost unparalleled online experience. While it has a rocky start and takes a lot of commitment to truly invest in, there really is nothing like it.
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After working on the project for the better part of decade now, I asked Yoshida what he thinks about the game’s current state, and if he has a message for the fans who’ve stuck by Square Enix all this time. “Final Fantasy 14 is at a very happy place right now, and it’s thanks to to all the players, fans, and members of the media who have supported us throughout the years. We are very grateful for this.
“The development and administration teams consider the members of the community as comrades, expanding FFXIV together as allies. I believe that FFXIV is a Final Fantasy created with the community, so let’s continue enjoying it together!”